Symbolic Action

Symbols mean things, but they do not necessarily accomplish things in concrete fashion, so they often seem to be a prime source of argument and misunderstanding in the political arena.

Last week, environmental activists throughout the US participated in a “green hour” in which they all committed to turn off all electricity-using appliances in their possession for one hour (from 8-9pm, as I recall). This was supposed to express to the leaders of the G-20 nations the importance of moving to implement regulations to reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

Not being a major devotee of the global warming cause (I don’t think the kind of restrictions that could realistically be passed would do much good if global warming is in fact a man-made phenomenon, so I would be more interested in putting resources into mitigation than regulating power production) this gesture strikes me as a bit silly. If you really thought that reducing power consumption was important, it seems to me you should reduce your power consumption. Permanently, that is, not just for one hour and then go back to normal.

In the same sense, I suspect that the continuing controversy over Notre Dame University honoring President Obama looks silly to outsiders.

(“Outsiders” might mean a couple different things here, and I’ll try to get into that in a moment.) It’s unlikely that whether Obama gives a speak and receives and honorary degree will actually result in more or less children being killed in the womb. The problem that we are calling out is one of symbolism. Notre Dame is (or ought to be) one of the country’s premier Catholic universities, and as such its presenting a conspicuous honor to an adamantly pro-abortion politician seems to send a message that the Catholic Church in America does not consider abortion to be a big issue. (Ask yourself: would a politician with otherwise laudable policies who was an vocal segregationist or anti-Semite be to honored?)

Our belief as Catholics is that abortion is the killing of innocent human beings. As such, it is a “big deal”, and not going out of our way to honor someone who holds that this killing should be legal hardly seems a hard price to pay for a bit of intellectual and moral consistency. I think that the critiques of Notre Dame University’s actions have been quite correct in this regard.

However, because this is primarily a matter of symbol, it seems particularly easy for those pro-lifers who do see redeeming aspects in Obama’s other policies to question what all the fuss is about. After all, who gives a commencement address isn’t a matter of saving lives, it is?

For a topic that’s been discussed so much, I think it comes down to something very simple: As Catholics we believe that to be “pro-choice” is to embrace the legality and indeed protection and enshrinement as a “right” the murder of another human being. We believe that a politician who actively advocates pro-choice policies is actively advocating the continuance of a gross injustice. As such, it is only fitting that we not grant any honors that would seem to indicate general approbation to such a politician. Like the ancient Christians, we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. We must pay our taxes, respect the laws to the extent we can, and work within the system of civil society to right the injustices that permeate it. And, of course, work with those around us personally to create a grass roots culture of life.

A Catholic institution going out of its way to honor a pro-choice politician (even if for something as vague as “his leadership” a couple months into his first term) is thus not an appropriate action. Perhaps it seems odd to create such a fuss over something that will not directly save anyone’s life or improve anyone’s condition. (And frankly, I could do with a bit less fuss. I think the bishops have been right to state their point and state it firmly and calmly, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot else to discuss beyond that. Though the “someone is wrong on the internet” principle keeps pulling me in.) But when we talk about “changing the culture” rather than only seeking legal solutions, developing in ourselves the deep and automatic reaction that people who advocate pro-choice positions are doing something disreputable is just such a small, culture shifting move.

If we could “change the culture” to the point where Catholics saw it as no more acceptable to honor a pro-choice politician than to honor a pro-segregation one, we would have built a culture with a strong enough shame reaction to abortion to actually have less abortions. And that would be a good thing.

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  1. Good piece!

    “I think the bishops have been right to state their point and state it firmly and calmly, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot else to discuss beyond that.”

    Agreed, totally. I’m glad I’m not the only pro-life Catholic who thinks so.

    I actually wrote about this same exact topic – symbolic battles – in the essay I linked on my last blog entry here.

    I think the symbolic struggle arises when the real victories look unattainable or unrealistic, when they look distant. I look at this symbolic struggle in the context of Christianity being driven out of the public square and mocked relentlessly by the culture. In that context it is a symptom of decline and defeat.

    Confrontation of evil is necessary, but I think in this time of crisis especially, inspiration to do good is even more important. I don’t think the pro-life movement in America can defeat the Obama administration in a head to head political battle, anymore than the American revolutionaries were able to fight head to head with a British regiment. Other tactics are required.

    We also have to keep in mind that voters in three states rejected pro-life measures last fall. Even as voters went to the polls in California to shoot down gay marriage, they also shot down a simple parental notification for minors seeking abortions. This is disastrous, if one’s entire strategy hinges on politics.

  2. The one thing I’d want to be clear on is: I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that movements resort to symbolic struggles when they can’t attain real victories. Rather, symbolic actions are how cultures build the moral consensus which allows “real” victories.

    So with the environmental movement, successfully building a sense of moral duty to do certain “green” things (regardless of whether in objective terms they result in true environmental benefit) makes it possible for the environmental movement to score real victories.

    Similarly, if we as a Catholic culture were successful in enforcing a sense of shame and moral outrage in regards to abortion such that the leadership of Notre Dame would never have even thought of inviting a pro-choice politician to speak at their commencement, that same cultural shame impulse would result in lots of real victories. (Not to mention many fewer abortions.)

    The difficulty is that building a cultural sense of shame intentionally is hard. As with so many things, action often inspires belief, so I think refusing to grant honors to pro-choice public figures would be a good start. But it takes a lot more than that to rebuild a cultural conscience. And that so many people (ND administration being an example) see no problem with inviting Obama underscores we have quite a ways to go.

    But, having gone on verbosely for a while, I’d say the reason there’s not much more to say about it is simple that it’s a very simple thing: We should be ashamed to give an honor to a pro-choice politician. Since that’s all there is to the point, extended discussion often just becomes an escallating repetition of: “We should be ashamed to do such a thing.” “Why?” “BECAUSE WE SHOULD BE ASHAMED TO DO SUCH A THING, YOU GODLESS FREAK.”

    And then things get nasty…

  3. Well said. It also seems to me that while it’s a small matter beside the larger abortion issue, little of the brouhaha has focused on the significance of the day. Commencement is, after all, for the students who are graduating; after four or more years’ hard work it seems to me they ought not to have their successes overshadowed by a speaker who (1) is a shoe-in to draw all attention away from them to himself and (2) has a public history of actions likely to be morally repugnant to a great many of them and those present to cheer them on. If I were a ND grad this year I’d be hopping mad–and would probably seriously consider not attending my own graduation.

    Did Fr. Jenkins consider the potential impact on his graduating class in making this decision, or was the Obama magnetism too strong to resist?

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